Riché Richardson
Jason Koski/Cornell University Riché Richardson, professor of Africana studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Juneteenth marks emancipation’s progress and delay

Juneteenth reminds Riché Richardson of the exciting church services she attended growing up, where the congregation celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day. Young people in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, spoke to the congregation about the value of hard work, achievement and making a contribution to society.

“It was powerful to see seniors literally in tears because they were so profoundly touched by what the youth had to say,” says Richardson, professor of Africana studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

But Juneteeth also reminds her of the obstacles that stand in the way of fully achieving Black freedom. Juneteenth, the federal holiday celebrated June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in the U.S., in Galveston, Texas, heard they had been freed – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on Jan. 1, 1863.

“That deferral mirrors the patterns of deferring the process of Black freedom – and that continues to this day,” Richardson says. “It’s a long road to freedom, but it’s a freedom that in so many ways continues to be denied.”

Her most recent book, “Emancipation’s Daughters: Reimagining Black Femininity and the National Body” (2021), gets to the heart of what has been, and continues to be, important and impactful about the ongoing work to achieve Black freedom, she says.

It examines how iconic Black women – from Mary McLeod Bethune and Rosa Parks to Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama and Beyoncé – have established public voices and impacted politics.

Bethune in particular exemplifies the progress of Black freedom, Richardson says. Born in 1875 to parents who had been slaves, Bethune went on to found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, and worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Federal Council of Negro Affairs – also known as the Black Cabinet – made up of African Americans who served as public policy advisers to Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “She became a significant and very influential national mother in the U.S. public sphere and collaborated with multiple U.S. presidents,” Richardson says.

The National Council of Negro Women took on a decadeslong project to erect a monument to Bethune in Washington, D.C. The statue was unveiled July 10, 1974, on what would have been her 99th birthday; Bethune died in 1955. The Bethune statue faces the Emancipation Memorial, which features President Abraham Lincoln with a Black slave, was financed by former slaves and was dedicated in 1876. “So in our public sphere, Bethune was very much represented as a symbolic link to the Emancipation era and the progress forward,” Richardson says.

The Biden Administration’s decision in 2021 to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday marked a more recent significant step toward Black emancipation, she says. “I think it helps to underscore the significance of the project of Black liberation for everyone in the nation,” Richardson says.

But symbolic gestures must not obscure urgent policy issues, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, both of which Congress failed to pass into law, she says. “If we don’t have action on the policies that impact lives right now,” she says, “then it doesn’t get to the heart of why Juneteenth matters now.”

There are many other ways in which Black freedom has been delayed and deferred, Richardson says. Walmart recently was set to sell a Juneteenth ice cream – a swirled red velvet and cheesecake ice cream in a container adorned with Pan-African colors and an image of two Black hands high-fiving. “Share and celebrate African American culture, emancipation and enduring hope,” the label read. Walmart later pulled the ice cream from its freezers and apologized after accusations of commercializing the holiday.

“The misunderstandings about Juneteenth have to do with presuming this is another opportunity to profiteer and commercialize the freedom struggle, as opposed to demonstrating a genuine understanding of it and a commitment to challenging persisting forms of oppression including systemic racism,” Richardson says. Perhaps even worse, she says, are Juneteenth celebrations that exclude Black people altogether.

People in the U.S. and around the world remain unfree – from the epidemic of gun violence as seen in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, to war in Ukraine and fundamental questions about the precarity of American democracy and free speech, she says.

“Juneteenth invites us to take a closer look at questions about citizenship and our Constitution and how it is designed to guarantee freedom,” Richardson says. “But the reality is that, even now, there are so many obstacles to fully actualizing the vision it outlines.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Black and white historic photo of one person giving an award to another on a stage
Roger Smith/Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress) In 1943, Mary McLeod Bethune, President of the National Council of Negro women, presents certificates to hostesses for USO duty, at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C.